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The Secret of Happiness

6:30:00 AMMeredith Kuzma

This week in my reading of von Hildebrand's The Heart I've been looking at various disorders of the affective sphere, from affective atrophy, (Chapter 5) where the heart is neglected in favor of the intellect or will to the tyrannical heart (Chapter 7) which rules over the intellect and will. I then moved on to Chapter 8, “The Heart as the Real Self.” Here von Hildebrand discusses a seeming paradox and contradiction of human life: the heart can not really be controlled, yet the heart is capable of revealing who we really are.


Human life seems to revolve around simple paradoxes like this. Falling in love, for example, is in a certain sense out of one’s control. Another example would be the delight one has in experiencing an overwhelming beauty. Both are a gift which one cannot control.


In the moral sphere, the will has the final say and thus, in this capacity, reveals the self. However in many other areas it is the heart which reveals the self, specifically through human love. Love, according to von Hildebrand, is not merely an emotion but an exchange between persons—from friends to family to lovers. When asked about happiness, the heart answers, for it is the heart alone that experiences happiness.


The will's response to moral questions reveals freedom in a concrete way; whereas, the heart seems to have experiences that arise spontaneously. Yet, von Hildebrand says that freedom may not be the way to determine the “rank” of an experience. “Freedom is indeed an essential mark of the person as an image of God. But what may also mark the specific high rank of a thing is the fact that it can be granted to us only as a gift” (pg 68-69).


“...the one thing all men long for: happiness.Happiness is a gift, a pure gift. Much as we may prepare the grounds for it, genuine happiness remains a gift, dropping like dew upon our heart, shining gratuitously like a sunray into our soul” (pg 69).


For von Hildebrand some affections are marked by their character as gift coming from the “very depth of the person's soul. [...] These affections of the higher level, then, are truly gifts—natural gifts of God which man cannot give himself by his own power. Coming as they do from the very depth of his person, they are in a specific way voices of his true self, voices of his full personal being” (pg 70).


The secret of happiness, then, is that it is a gift. To pursue it as though it can be taken by force ignores the fundamental nature of happiness and the way in which it is received. True we can prepare for happiness, as when a man plans the perfect location to propose to a woman, yet even here the happiness he receives when she says “yes” comes from her gift of love to him.


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